When it comes to the topic of narcissism, you might be surprised to learn that psychologists still hotly debate what narcissism actually is. Some say they have very high self-esteem, others that they have very low self-esteem. Others that they are self-aware and clever, others that they’re cognitively deficient and barely aware of themselves as active participants in their lives at all. Object relations theory suggests something is fundamentally wrong in their perception of objects both internal and external. Some say they don’t have any empathy, others that they have empathy, but they just don’t care. More importantly for a therapist; some say they can be treated successfully, but others that they are completely beyond rehabilitation. Then there are countless others who take up various positions between those ranges, and some additional views that I haven’t even mentioned. The only things that psychologists seem to agree on regarding narcissism is that they’re very difficult people to get along with; they tend to avoid therapy, they’re very easily offended, they are horrible parents, they’re almost never happy, and they’re controlling and destructive.
So when I talk about narcissism it is important that I am clear about what I am talking about, but also I often think with all the debate and disagreement among experts in the field maybe I should use a new term altogether in referring to them. I tend to use the term “tyranni” to refer to narcissists because for me the most distinctive aspect about a narcissist is not their supposed “self-love”, which is hotly debated, but their pervasive desire to dominate and subvert all their relationships: to act as little tyrants so to speak, hence I call them tyranni meaning “the little tyrants”. For this article I will use the term narcissism, but rest assured if I ever write a book about them I will probably call them tyranni instead.
Narcissists are people who lack the ability to trust and bond with others. This lack of ability to bond with others impairs their ability to feel empathy for other people (but not necessarily with animals), it also impairs their ability to recognise their impact on other people: The narcissist can call you a “selfish jerk” not realising that calling you such may damage your bond/trust with the narcissist. They will also not be aware of the influence their choice of words has in pushing well meaning people away from them. Instead the narcissist will often be baffled as to why you stopped talking to them, maybe calling you “over sensitive” or other further insults resulting in relationship bridge burning. Because they can’t bond with other people they can’t be happy for other people winning. This means they can’t have a win-win interaction with other people without feeling like they still lost. Instead, they seek compulsively to have a win-lose interaction with everyone. This is where their domineering and controlling behaviour comes from: an insatiable desire to win more than the other people they interact with. This drive is so strong in some narcissists that it becomes desirable for them to have lose-lose interactions with people so long as they perceive the other person as losing more than they are. This seeking of win-lose interactions and a lack of empathy leads to the often extremely cruel, unusual, and uncivil behaviours of narcissists. The lack of empathy also severely limits their self-knowledge because they perceive everyone as being narcissists too and thus any attempt at giving them constructive feedback is interpreted as gaslighting the narcissist; because that’s exactly what a narcissist would do. So all feedback, advice, etc… Is dismissed by the narcissist as lies and disinformation, and thus the narcissist fails to grow and mature from the honest feedback of other people. The lack of empathy also means that narcissists will often display a callous disregard for the wellbeing of other people, capable of throwing friends and family members under the proverbial bus without missing a beat.
Notice that I didn’t use the term “self-esteem” once in my definition of narcissism. This is because I believe some narcissists are high self-esteem while others are low self-esteem, and since this aspect of a narcissist varies it doesn’t make sense to included it in my definition.
Instead what I do recognise is at least three prominent sub-types of narcissism. Each of these arise from a different causal factor in the development of the narcissist personality. There might be more than these three sub-types, but these are the only three that I’ve come across. I distinguish between different types of narcissist by the cause of their narcissism and not their characteristics.
Type 1: The Genetic Narcissist
The genetic narcissist is born with differences in their brain structure the prevent the normal development of empathy. These narcissists still have some core components of a conscience so they generally accept that murder, rape, assault, etc are wrong, they might even believe lying is wrong, so they aren’t technically sociopaths. However, individuals of this type may not see anything wrong, or badly wrong, with intimidation, deception, lying, gaslighting, etc… In fact they might actually admire people they see as being great deceivers and manipulators. While they typically don’t carry out acts of murder, they can be very cruel and even sadistic as the empathic mechanisms usually present in people aren’t there to tell them to restrain their behaviour before it does serious harm. A person might be terrified or crying, but the narcissist simply won’t see this as an issue.
These narcissists are typically happy the way they are as they’ve adjusted to being this way because it has been that way all their life. Some of them might actually gain self-awareness of their narcissism and become intellectually curious about understanding themselves. Their narcissism is more calm and methodical, devoid of passion. Likewise, it is probably the least treatable, at least until more is learned about the workings of empathy in the brain. However, these narcissists wouldn’t necessarily want to be cured, but they might be more willing than most to seek therapy whether for overcoming their relationship problems or becoming more skilful manipulators.
Type 2: The Traumatised Narcissist/Co-Narcissist
These people weren’t born without the ability to trust and bond with others. However, during their life they were traumatised, probably repeatedly, when people they bonded with broke their trust in a significant way. They might have been emotionally, physically, or sexually, abused as children by their parents, teacher, or another family member. They might have been abandoned and left alone for long periods of time during a critical period in brain development. Alternatively, they might adults in an abusive romantic relationship where their trust in the other person is repeatedly broken again and again, such trauma can push someone to the point where a narcissistic personality arises.
These people can of course move down the Co-Narcissist path and develop that condition instead, which is the complimentary condition developed as a response to having to live with narcissists. I will cover this topic in another article/video later.
Here we reach one of the most frustrating sub-types. Because these narcissists have a proper functioning brain, in theory this would make these narcissists the easiest to treat with the best possibility for recovery. While certainly, they probably are the ones most likely to make a complete recovery, but only if they want to. The heart breaking part of narcissism is that these people will generally feel so threatened, uncomfortable, and fearful of therapy that they won’t start on the journey of recovery. Any attempts to encourage them to get therapy will be interpreted as gaslighting designed to undermine the power of the narcissist (or humiliate them) and is summarily dismissed.
It is this sub-group of narcissists that I believe the idea that narcissists have low self-esteem applies. This is because these narcissists are capable of feeling empathy, and so if someone points out to them the damage they have caused other people and their relationships they will experience overwhelming horror, guilt, and shame at their actions, and consequently show the symptoms of very low self-esteem. Contrast this to the genetic narcissists who cannot empathise with their victims, they can’t experience the same guilt and horror at their cruel behaviours. This is of course good news from a spiritual point of view as traumatised narcissists are capable of experiencing disgust with their own actions they are the most capable of making a complete recovery and rebuilding their lives and relationships.
Due to the nature of trauma though, these narcissists might be partially functional in some aspects of their lives. Maybe they’re quite functional in their work relationships, but hopelessly jaded and defensive in their romantic relationships? Maybe they’re good with children but bad with adults? Or bad with children and good with adults? The extent and severity of their narcissism will vary depending on the frequency, types, and severity of traumas they experienced.
Type 3: The Privileged Narcissist
This third group of narcissists are probably the most interesting, but also the most infuriating. These narcissists weren’t born lacking empathy, nor were they abused, but instead the opposite occurred: they were blessed with exceptional good fortune, possibly good looks, possibly a lot of money, possibly something else like exceptional intelligence or charisma, that lead them to being extremely influential over other people. This sense of having power over other people lead to a curious phenomenon found in most people to stop feeling empathy for people. Indeed, the privileged elites often see and talk about common people as though we’re less than people, more animals or pets. It’s like that exceptionally attractive boy or girl in high school who used to be very nice and friendly to you in grade school, but after their adolescent bloom they treat you like you don’t even exist anymore. They’re also the workmate who used to treat you with respect when they worked with you or below you in the hierarchy, but once promoted stop treating you with any respect anymore.
The lack of empathy these people feel leads them into the temptation to become entitled, to expecting special treatment. Thus without a terribly backstory, or a genetic disorder, these individuals become functional narcissists in every sense of the word. Their lack of empathy may well rub other people the wrong way and provoke anger and insults being directed towards the privileged narcissist and this can lead to these narcissists no longer trusting other people. They might also realise that people are only their friends because of their gifts and money, and so they are false friends, which again makes it harder for them to trust other people as they have to be constantly on their guard.
These narcissists generally have high self-esteem, and have very little interest in getting therapy, especially if a sense of entitlement becomes incorporated into their sense of self. These people might fall on hard times, lose their looks, money, confidence, and once humbled suddenly switch back to being the nice warm friendly people they used to be.
What’s interesting about these narcissists is that they are probably perfectly healthy people, but when circumstances change their personalities change radically. For those interested in politics it might be of great interest in studying these people because they basically explain why power corrupts people.
In conclusion, there are three main paths to becoming a narcissist, although it’s possible that two or more might occur at the same time (a traumatised beauty for example). There is a lot of variety among narcissists, some that are more treatable than others, some that have high self esteem than others, and some that are calmer than others. However, what they all have in common is a poor ability to empathise with others and an inability to trust/bond with other people. Certainly not good choices for romantic partners or employees!